Friday, May 3, 2019

Divided We Will Fall

Divided We Will Fall
(originally published in Tumbleweird May 2019)

by Ted Miller

My mother used to say “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it.” 

Many of the people commenting on social media posts and online news articles seem to have missed that childhood lesson.

Every time I break my self-imposed rule to “never read the comments,” I see some of the most vile, hateful, divisive rhetoric spewed at fellow Americans and community members. What is it about the internet that makes people think that is acceptable behavior? Nobody that I interact with talks that way in person, to me or to anyone else. I know in my real-life conversations with others we often have significantly different opinions on a wide range of topics, but we don’t call each other names, yell obscenities, or accuse the other of being the enemy. So why is something we would never say to someone’s face acceptable language online?

We seem to have forgotten that we have more in common than not. Fifty years ago, Americans listened to the same news broadcasts, watched the same shows, and read the same newspapers. Our differing opinions about government, religion, and our place in the world didn’t overshadow our common experience. We shared a common set of facts and American values. Our political differences were about how government policy reflects our common values, not whether Democrats or Republicans were the enemy of the state.

The rise of talk radio, cable news, the internet, and social media changed all that. With the rapid expansion of choices in the media we consume, too many of us have moved to our own echo chambers, reinforcing our beliefs while becoming more and more skeptical of information that doesn’t fit our views. Social media algorithms continually feed us what we want to hear at the exclusion of a shared community experience. Misinformation, conspiracy, and divisive rhetoric spreads virally without regard to the facts. And our public discourse seems to have raced to the bottom of decency.

Watching this divisive rhetoric all over the news and social media today, I am struck at how deeply divided we are, and it is deeply disturbing. This divisive rhetoric has spread from talk radio and social media to the halls of Congress. We are no longer Americans fighting together for the future of our country. We are "us versus them," yelling at each other, convincing ourselves that the other is the enemy. It seems like the country is more divided today than at any time in living memory. 

Former CIA Deputy Director John McLaughlin said something in an interview last month that really struck me. Reflecting on Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report, he was surprised at how vulnerable we were to foreign influence by the Russians. Starting in 2014, the Russian government has worked to use the rise of hyper-partisanship and media fueled polarization to weaken the unity that makes our country strong. Deputy Director McLaughlin said:

"But here's what I think they were successful in. They were successful in creating or exacerbating enormous partisan divisions in our country. Just think about it. The two parties are at each other's throats. The president is immobilized on a number of foreign policy issues. Even the media, to a degree, is polarized about this issue. And the United States looks pretty bad in the eyes of the world. I think the Russians actually succeeded well beyond what they imagined they could here. And that's the other big impression that comes out of this - is how fragile we were. We thought our democracy and our cohesiveness as a nation - I did - were stronger than they turned out to be in the face of this.[i]"

This downward spiral into divisiveness has been worsening for decades. The hyperbolic partisanship that continually paints the other political party as evil has gotten to the point that party power is more important than national unity. The Russians just took advantage of that and are continuing those efforts today.

Unless we change something, this divisiveness will be our undoing, either from within or by a foreign power. 

Maybe we can start by holding each other accountable, one conversation at a time. We can encourage our friends to be more respectful in their disagreements online, particularly when they are arguing with strangers. Other than the trolls and bots, social media accounts are real people with real friends and families. Those friends see what is being said online. We should each ask ourselves if we would tolerate the insults and hate if we were witnessing the conversation in person.

Maybe we should remind our friends, and ourselves, that the golden rule applies online as well as in person. If we can make it socially unacceptable to bully and spew hate online, maybe we can start to close the divide and focus more on what we have in common.

We are all in this together. As Abraham Lincoln said, “United we stand, divided we fall.” Let’s not divide ourselves. Let’s work together to make our political discourse more positive.

If you can’t comment in a nice and respectful manner, don’t comment at all.

[i]CIA Deputy Director John McLaughlin, All Things Considered, National Public Radio, 4/18/2019

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